August 14, 2018

The Setting:

I want an apartment with character – one that is old and homey and full of stories. That is my approach when apartment hunting. I much prefer an old house converted into a quadruplex with crooked floor, picture rail, and mismatched doors to new mid or high-rise apartments, although there are pros and cons to each. One of the hidden trade-offs of living in an old building with character is the potential for poor indoor air quality. New multifamily apartment buildings are a different breed. They are typically built with strong supervision, meeting current energy and building codes.  In an old house, do you dare venture into the crawlspace or attic? It might be a good idea to brave these dark, dank spaces to check out some of the organs of your home.

Chances are an older property has been (mis?) managed in a piecemeal approach. As one system breaks, it is replaced. This makes the most economic sense. However, building science teaches you to treat a house as one big system, considering the way in which all the components interact. With gas-fired appliances this becomes especially important.  Gas furnaces and water heaters create combustion gases when they operate, which if not properly vented, can mix with the indoor air, creating a serious health hazard. It is important that these combustion gases, including carbon monoxide, are exhausted completely to the exterior and not drawn into the living space. Negative pressure inside the house can cause those combustion gases to backdraft into the house instead of going out through the flue. Negative pressure can come from running a clothes dryer, a leaky duct system,  a kitchen exhaust fan,  running, or even certain doors being opened or closed.

Personally, I am renting the aforementioned apartment in a converted quadruplex, and carbon monoxide (CO) was a concern. Part of the “charm” of my studio apartment is the kitchen which contains a built-in blender, Fred Flintstone oven (pictured below) and a range who’s pilot light was “irreparable” (according to landlord) and had to be hand-lit. They are the perfect backdrop to a homemaker pinup photoshoot, but are they safe for actual use?


The aforementioned Fred Flintstone Oven

The Danger:

As I fire up the oven the room fills with a strong smell of gas. Yikes! Eventually the pilot catches and the smell of gas subsides, but that doesn’t mean my worries do. Incomplete combustion is the birthplace of CO, an odorless, colorless gas that is extremely toxic. Any system that burns fuel in your house be it kerosene, natural gas, gasoline, or even wood generates CO. Think about your gas clothes dryer, furnace, fireplace, oven, range, water heater, or that car idling in your attached garage.  To be safe, all CO must be exhausted and your house should have active ventilation to keep the air healthy.

A good first step to take towards health and safety is to install a low-level CO monitor to determine if you are being exposed. A low-level CO monitor is a step up from the average one you would buy at Home Depot or Lowes. Standard CO monitors only signal you at levels as low as 30 parts per million (ppm). However, being exposed to lesser concentrations of CO for an extended period of time has harmful health effects as well. Pregnant women and children are especially at risk. Chronic exposure to CO has been documented to have adverse neurological effects. Concentrations as low as 5 ppm of CO are worrisome, so the alarm at 30 ppm in standard models falls short.

The Results:

The SK Team and I took an afternoon to run a Combustion Safety Training exercise on my apartment. Using a gas leak detector, we “sniffed” the gas lines and found several leaks. We also discovered that the four burners on the range produce different amounts of CO. Keep in mind that it is normal to have a small amount of CO produced during an appliance’s initial start-up. I will, however, be avoiding the back-right burner from now on because of the excess CO it produces. Finally, the dreaded oven that filled the room with the smell of gas… It PASSED! We could not detect levels of CO higher than the standard threshold. The pilot may be a tad faulty, but as far as complete combustion and exhausting, we have the green light on the oven!

Even though my apartment “passed” the combustion safety tests, I did not pass up on the opportunity to install a low-level CO monitor. I find comfort in the digital display with readings in real-time. Installing the monitor was a breeze. Just remember to install it per the manufacturer’s recommendations – away from the kitchen, so the alarm does not get set off at the initial spike after firing up appliances. The model I purchased from Defender flashes a BRIGHT green light occasionally to let the user know it is still actively monitoring. Because of this, I would not recommend installing this in the line of vision from your bed. Since my studio apartment is essentially one big bedroom, I taped a little horse blinder to block out this annoying little flash.

I am lucky to have such knowledgeable coworkers and leadership that are willing to help me evaluate my apartment. If you are not so lucky to have these human and material resources at your disposal, SK Collaborative offers healthy housing consulting as one of our core services, so call or email us if you would like to know more.

Samantha Morton - SK Collaborative Single Family Certification Manager